Stray Dog


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Stray Dog
"Stray Dog is really a very ordinary guy, but there's one thing that's extraordinary about him... he truly believes in America."

Sometimes documentaries are born just because of the people one meets along the way. When Debra Granik was filming Winter's Bone - the movie that made a star of the young Jennifer Lawrence - she encountered a biker known as Stray Dog (real/working name Ronnie Hall) and cast him in a small role. The two clicked and Granik went on to make this film about his life. Despite his natural charisma and a lifestyle some viewers may find exotic, Stray Dog is really a very ordinary guy, but there's one thing that's extraordinary about him. With the grace of a 1950s comic book hero, he truly believes in America, and he devotes himself to its largely forgotten ideals.

From an opening beside a lonely highway where he stops his Harley to swig moonshine with his friends, the film takes us through the nitty gritty of Stray Dog's life, both geographically and historically. It takes in the patched-up house in a poor suburb which, because it's home, is clearly loved beyond compare. It takes us back through two bloody tours in Vietnam where he did things to other people that he never imagined a human being could do and that he has tried ever since to atone for. This involves visits to his therapist, where he seems completely comfortable with the camera following him. He's still traumatised by the thought of soldiers dying for nothing, but it makes him no less respectful of the military, and he travels to the funerals of recently fallen soldiers he's never met to pay his respects, offering his services, such as they are, to grieving relatives. Like many biker communities, his is centred on a notion of mutual support, and he extends those values to pretty much everyone else he meets.

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Stray Dog doesn't just talk the talk. He believes in doing his share. We see him with the daughter he had with his Korean first wife. She's expecting a bay; she makes ends meet by working two jobs. He wants to help her out so she can improve her situation but she wants to be independent. It's a gentle stand-off. Meanwhile he's working hard so that his Mexican wife, Alicia, can bring her twin sons across the border to live with them. He's also learning Spanish, practicing with tapes.

Like all heroes, Stray Dog has a story tempered by tragedy, and his strength may come from blindness to it. His daughter seems tempted by college but all too aware that she might still be left unable to find well paying work. His stepsons are confounded by the idea of living in the sticks, not the thrilling urban landscape they'd dreamed of - nowhere anything like as sophisticated as Mexico City. Stray Dog does odd jobs, sometimes assisted by his fellow bikers, but the neighbourhood is falling down around him. All this Granik quietly observes. What emerges is a portrait not just of one man but of a country that has long been trying to get by on hope. It reminds us what that country could have been and - perhaps - what it could still be.

Reviewed on: 23 Feb 2015
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Portrait of American war vet and biker Ronnie ‘Stray Dog’ Hall.

Director: Debra Granik

Writer: Debra Granik

Starring: Ronnie Hall

Year: 2014

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: US

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